Exhibiting Craft and Design
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Exhibiting Craft and Design

Transgressing the White Cube Paradigm, 1930–Present

Alla Myzelev, Alla Myzelev

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eBook - ePub

Exhibiting Craft and Design

Transgressing the White Cube Paradigm, 1930–Present

Alla Myzelev, Alla Myzelev

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Exhibiting Craft and Design: Transgressing the White Cube Paradigm, 1930–present investigates the ways that craft and design objects were collected, displayed, and interpreted throughout the second half of the twentieth century and in recent years. The case studies discussed in this volume explain the notion the neutral display space had worked with, challenged, distorted, or assisted in conveying the ideas of the exhibitions in question. In various ways the essays included in this volume analyse and investigate strategies to facilitate interactionamongst craft and design objects, their audiences, exhibiting bodies, and the makers. Using both historical examples from the middle of the twentieth century and contemporary trends, the authors create a dialogue that investigates the different uses of and challenges tothe White Cube paradigm of space organization.

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Arte general


The persistence of the White Cube paradigm

Alla Myzelev
In the recent novel The Museum of Innocence (2009), Turkish Nobel laureate and author Orhan Pamuk describes the museum that his protagonist Kemal creates to commemorate his decade-long love for a woman named Füsun. Over the years that Kemal spent with his beloved and her family, he had taken objects such as cigarette butts and candy wrappers that would remind him of her and their innocent interactions. When Füsun dies in an accident soon after she agrees to become his lover, Kemal turns her house into a museum where he preserves the story of her life. Pamuk’s protagonist lets visitors contemplate the life of his beloved by visiting the apartment and looking at everyday objects that surrounded Füsun during her lifetime. The story of this woman’s life is documented in those everyday items, giving them qualities associated with museum objects and investing them with the associations of a museum display. At the same time, these objects commemorate the political shift from a nationalist republic to a democratic and outwardly oriented Turkish state. This highly personal museum functions in the novel as a tool of preservation of memories, ideas, and the feeling of passing time because, as Kemal attempts to live his life, he simultaneously understands the need for preservation of the memories and events through objects. Such a highly unusual style of collecting testifies to Kemal’s understanding of the need for preservation; the protagonist is a modern subject who not only lives through the events of the past but also seeks to document his feelings and file the memories for future use.1 What interests me most in this novel is the strategy of displaying a series of large and small objects that, in essence, represents the protagonist’s life. In April 2012, Pamuk opened a real museum that documents the lives of middle-class citizens of Istanbul during the 1970s through personal items and memorabilia.2 The artefacts include some design and craft but also many simple mass-produced objects that have mainly cultural rather than artistic significance outside of the walls of the museum.
The Museum of Innocence avoids the neutrality of the authorial or curatorial voice, it disregards the ideas of authorial originality, and it avoids the use of a neutral surrounding to emphasize the significance of the art that it embraces. Instead, it offers a highly personal and idiosyncratic narrative that echoes the novel. It makes clear political allusions and, thus, creates a different breed of museum: one that negotiates its existence through the common life experiences of its visitors. Consequently, the Museum of Innocence becomes conceptually opposite to the neutralizing and decontextualizing qualities of the White Cube strategy of display that will be explained in this volume.
The practice of twentieth-century modernist museology is connected closely with the strategy of displaying art or artefacts which feature light neutral wall colour, large distance between works of art hanging or exhibited, and atmospheric light pointed at works of art. These displays are also accompanied by some, often limited, information on the piece that is often situated next to the artwork or in a different room, providing the visitors with an opportunity of reading and contemplating what they have just seen. Termed the White Cube Gallery by Brian O’Doherty,3 these displays epitomize the relationship between modernism and modern art:
The history of modernism is intimately framed by that space; or rather the history of modern art can be correlated with changes in that space and in the way we see it. We have now reached a point where we see not the art but the space first. An image comes to mind of a white, ideal space that, more than any single picture, may be the archetypal image of twentieth century art; it clarifies itself through a process of historical inevitability usually attached to the art it contains.4
This connection between art and space with modern art has been criticized for divesting objects of their cultural and functional significance, as well as for making a visit to a museum an elitist experience and thus feeding into the modernist tradition based on distinction of taste and knowledge of art.5 Yet, every museum and gallery display must negotiate important notions of authenticity of the experience and de-contextualization of the exhibits while at the same time providing fulfilling experiences to visitors. Most of the scholarly discussion around the display of art in the White Cube condition revolves around either paintings – two-dimensional, non-functional artefacts that require passive viewing – or anthropological objects divested of their original function and turned ultimately into objects of high art. This tome offers analysis of how three-dimensional, often (but not always) functional design and craft objects are displayed or perceived and interpreted in White Cubes.
Exhibiting Craft and Design: Transgressing the White Cube Paradigm hopes to investigate the ways that craft and design objects were collected, displayed, and interpreted throughout the second half of the twentieth century and recent years. The case studies discussed here explain how the notion of the neutral space interacted, challenged, distorted, or assisted in conveying ideas of the exhibitions in question. In various ways, these essays analyse and investigate strategies to facilitate interaction between craft and design objects, their audiences, exhibiting bodies, and the makers. Using both historical examples from the middle of the twentieth century and contemporary trends the authors create a dialogue between several strategies of use of and challenge to the White Cube paradigm of space organization.
The present volume seeks appropriate ways to display and collect craft and design. It asks what has been done in recent years and how exhibiting design and craft objects challenges the notion of the White Cube? In various ways, the essays in this book seek a more successful way to facilitate interaction between craft and design objects, their audiences, exhibiting bodies, and the makers. The Introduction will detail some of the most pressing challenges and strategies that affect such displays. In spite of the general realization that modernist presentation (sparsely furnished galleries, neutral walls, and large spaces between artworks) limits visitors’ ability to experience the objects, most of the exhibition of craft and design still uses it at least in part. Here we uncover the mechanisms that make this type of display still relevant today and the ways it affects our understanding of value of the objects, their function or lack of it, relationship between maker/designer and the objects, and finally between exhibition space and what is being displayed.
In this connection, White Cube is seen here as a paradigm of modernist display rather than the display strategy. In other words putting objects against neutral-coloured walls in a well-lit environment or similar types of display not only interacts with objects in particular ways but also turns these objects into part of the modernist narrative of accenting the visual, shying away from the domestic and believing that functionality of the object is not as important as its aesthetics. Thus the case studies discussed here examine how this set of associations is used and what is being done to change or disrupt it. As Timothy Mitchell argues, museums create an ‘exhibition order’ that makes us understand reality in a way as it is presented in a museum.6
It has been demonstrated that museums have served as promoters of consumption and makers of taste since at least the late nineteenth century.7 What then is the role of museums in promoting and elevating values of consumer goods and what are the tacit ways of encouraging conspicuous consumption in museum audiences? Hodson argues that ‘simultaneous distance from and engagement with the idea of design as business, leaves museum visitors in an ambiguous position to negotiate their own perspectives as spectators, students, and consumers’ (this volume, pp. 140–142). Museum gift shops introduce even more confusion when they sell copies or (in some cases) originals of the most iconic items on display. At the other end of the spectrum, some higher-end stores adopt museum strategies of display, imposing scarcity on the objects and the natural background and some go as far as introducing display cases. It is also worth noting that while shopping experiences become more and more dis-embodied and move towards virtual environments (www.ebay.com, www.etsy.com), contemporary museology calls for more and more haptic and embodied interaction with the artefacts, as was discussed above and as many authors in these pages argue. How then are museums different from commercial spaces? Do they need to be and how does the introduction of blended spaces, both commercial and exhibiting, change the status and value of artefacts?8

The White Cube paradigm

The practice of displaying art in a vacuum-like cube of neutral colour and lighting originated at MoMa in 1936. During his tenure as museum curator, Alfred Barr attempted to introduce the doctrine of presenting artefacts as independent, autonomous art pieces. Limiting the contextual information and offering ample space to study works of art, the ‘White Cube’ strategy reinforced the division between art and craft, beautiful and functional.9 According to Barr’s strategy, inspired by the aesthetics of the Enlightenment period and especially the theories of Emmanuel Kant, to be truly beautiful and thus worth being in the museum, objects should not have any functional appeal or any connection to everyday life. This desire to reject the cultural and mundane context of some objects and concentrate on pure aesthetic qualities contributed to an innovation of the system of display. Barr rejected the strategies of display that were practised in the nineteenth and early twentieth century such as the period room or the practice of hanging works next to each other as was done in nineteenth-century Salon exhibitions. Since its founding in 1929 MoMa was influenced by European Avante-Garde artists such as Mies van der Rohe, Lilly Reich, Herbert Beyer, and Frederick Kiesler who believed in a ‘modernist ethos where form was informed by function’.10 These modernist systems of display that helped to emphasize aesthetic qualities of the objects and neutralize the surroundings also helped to demonstrate ‘an image of the human race that flourished after World War II when institutions such as the UN and UNESCO promoted a vision of a like-minded and related global humanity’.11 The subdued and uniform surroundings not only helped to decontextualize the object but obliterated the origins of the exhibits and emphasized uniformity of the modernist aspiration of humanity.
The pristine White Cube had come under scrutiny with the appearance of revision-ist ideas and debates known as New Art History and New Museology since the early 1970s. In the case of craft and design, the critics of the White Cube claimed that it turned objects into unusable, de-contextualized, detached aesthetic entities that could only be valued for their beauty.12 Cultural anthropologists often noted that separating objects and not providing context about the culture from which these objects came mislead the audiences and presented the non-Western culture as ahistorical, backward, and exotic.13
In the early twenty-first century, these debates are often supported by examples of changed exhibiting strategies. Since 2000, museums have been trying to attract various constituencies and open up to diverse voices that often challenge the normative (white and heterosexual) museum visitor.14 In spite of numerous community-based projects, museum interventions and performances,15 exhibiting practices of art, design, and crafts still often adhere to the White Cube model. Therefore, given the historical outlook and wider social background that frames the apparent neutrality of the White Cube, this volume understands that the White Cube gallery display is a paradigm that is embedded in and indebted to the modernist tradition. This modern-ist tradition itself, however, is not free from contamination of crafts and design. As Jorunn Veiteberg argues, one of the most prominent early twentieth-century works, The Endless Column (1937) by Constantin Brancusi, demonstrates the elements of repetition, which were important to both minimalist art and to the craft of the potter.16 The essays in this volume question the suitability of the White Cube to exhibit both art and design objects both historically and in the contemporary period. The lessons that are learned after reading these pages will not point to a one-sided and categorical response. Most of the case studies discussed show that the objects change the spaces as much as the spaces change the objects. The process of aestheticization that comes from the White Cube to the object is not one-directional. The objects that are situated in the neutral displays, for example modernist textiles described by Virginia Troy or Korean porcelain discussed by Christine Hahn, have influenced the nature of the exhibition space as well....

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